Miller always finds a way to bring the Meadowlands crowd to its feet
Since their battle on September 24, both the Jets and Bills have made a number of successful transformations. However, one common thread that has remained between the two AFC East clubs is their respective dominance in the special teams' game and that match-up will likely have a lot of influence on the outcome of Sunday's main event.
Over the past nine games, the Bills have gone 4-5 with three of those losses coming by three points or less. The Jets have made obvious improvements as well particularly on the defensive side of the ball as the Green and White have allowed just over 11 points per game in the last month.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing for the two clubs though and both teams have suffered downfalls since Week Three. The Jets were shutout twice and the Bills were able to muster just one win during a five-week span in the middle of the season. Despite losses, shutouts, critical injuries and difficult opponents, two of the NFL's best special team units have found ways to maintain their dominant edge.
"On special teams, this is going to be one of our toughest challenges of the year because every area is good," Jets head coach Eric Mangini said of the Bills. "In every area, they have playmakers and they are extremely well-coached."
Bobby April is the Bills' special teams coach. Making his job easier are players like Terrence McGee and Brian Moorman. McGee, who ranks third in the AFC with 26.8 yard kickoff return average, is a threat every time he touches the ball. He trails only New England's Lawrence Maroney and Jets' electrifying return man Justin Miller, who sits atop the NFL with 29.0 yards per return.
"I think McGee is outstanding," said Mangini. "Really the Bills special teams as a group, year in and year out is impressive. You see the toughness that permeates the whole team, permeates special teams as well."
When McGee and Miller first met this season, McGee averaged 22.2 yards per return and Miller averaged 18 yards. McGee's 32-yard return was the longest of the afternoon, but Miller's 26-yard return couldn't have come at a better time for the Green and White. Following an early fourth quarter field goal that brought the Bills within eight points, Miller returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the 42-yard line. Using the great field position, the Jets would drive and eventually score on a Cedric Houston touchdown. That score proved to be vital as the Bills soon thereafter marched downfield and scored on their next drive.
"Any time you get a physical returner who is bringing it to you its just different," said Bills safety Jim Leonhard said of Miller. "Most returners aren't like that, so it's kind of a change-up that those returners throw at you and they make you tackle them. Terrence and Miller make you bring them down. They're not going to fall down on a shoulder hit. That's tough."
Moorman, the Bills' punter since 2001, has punted an AFC-most 70 times this season. Despite the abundance of work, Moorman has maintained an NFL best net average of 40.0 yards per kick. If Moorman can keep this tremendous pace going through the final frigid month of the season, he will become the first punter since 1976 to record a net average of 40.0 or more.
Even though Moorman had only had two punt attempts in the Bills' 28-20 loss to the Jets earlier this season, he was still able to boot a 58-yard punt and uphold a 49.5-yard average on the day. His counterpart, Jets' second-year punter Ben Graham, stole the show with four punts inside the Bills' 20-yard line as well as a 59-yard punt at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Despite the importance of distance and placement of punts coming from the long legs of Graham and Moorman, the focal point of this special showdown will be on the return game. As seen in last season's finale over the Bills at the Meadowlands, both McGee and Miller have the chance to break this game wide open. It was Miller's 95-yard return that gave the Jets a four-point lead and the eventual win in Week 17.
Now that the Bills know what kind of talent Miller possesses, the idea of stopping the second-year return man is virtually out of the question.
"He has done a great job not just against us, but against other teams," said Bills linebacker Mario Haggan. "If we just hold him to a few yards under his average it would be great - if we can hold him under 20, it would be a great accomplishment."
After placing Tim Dwight on injured reserve last Saturday, the Jets had rookie Leon Washington and Hank Poteat each return a punt last weekend. The Bills have speedster Roscoe Parrish on punt duty and his 13.5-yard average is second best in the NFL.
Friday Injury ReportJets*Questionable: FB B.J. Askew (foot), CB David Barrett (hip), LB Matt Chatham (foot), Eric Smith (foot) LB & Bryan Thomas (shoulder) *Probable: *RB Kevan Barlow (calf), *CB Andre Dyson (neck), *DE Shaun Ellis (ankle), *RB Cedric Houston (knee), DB *OL Pete Kendall (knee), *WR Justin McCareins (foot), *DL Rashad Moore (hand), *QB Chad Pennington (calf) & *WR Brad Smith (shoulder) & *S Rashad Washington (illness)
BillsOut: LB Angelo Crowell (fibula)
Questionable: LB John DiGiorgio (ankle), *RB Willis McGahee (ankle), *CB Terrence McGee & S Donte Whitner (hamstring)